The colonial period represents society in order by classes with titles such as gentleman versus lower class labels such as servant or tenant. A man of higher class would have owned a substantial amount of property, while sustaining a large sum of wealth. A gentleman would have luxury items in his home such as fine china for meals, imported fabrics for clothing, a carriage for traveling and these items would help to distinguish his reputation within the community among his peers. A lady would also hold her status with her knowledge of art, needlework and capabilities of reading and in some cases writing to enable her to operate the household and raise her children. All classes of people could be seen in the public coffee houses that dotted the landscape throughout the colonies. The most prevalent of these public establishments could be found near the main harbors lined with ships filled with various types of cargo and people.
Coffee Houses consisted of live auctions, business transactions, community meetings and the retail of coffee by the cup. Courts and trials were even held in many of the colonial structures as well as disagreements filled with fist fighting and verbal outbursts. A lively scene on a daily basis must have been the normal routine for the colonists associated with the atmosphere of colonial coffee houses. Contracts finalized, lawyers advising their clients, loans carried out and the exchange of items in trade. The beginning stage of the New York Stock Exchange dates to humble origins within the walls of the colonial coffee houses. All early records indicate the main structures consisting of wood equipped with a fireplace and a long lengthy room upon entering. Tables as long as 20 feet span the room with various chairs, stools and benches lining their edges. The aroma of coffee surely filled the air as one entered the business. A significant number of coffee pots stand on the raised hearth ready to pour upon the signal given while constant brewing of fresh ground beans takes place over the fire. The constant chatter as the voices fill the room echoing and clashing across the walls from one to another.
The Merchants Coffee House residing in New York during 1779 was located at the corner of Wall and Water Street. The British controlled the area with strict rules and regulations that panicked many of the families in the Manhattan and Long Island areas. Entire troops would invade a neighboring farm and setup camp by using the materials found on the property and also by removing personal items of the home. This is the scene as Robert Townsend agrees with Abraham Woodhull, his lifelong friend, to spy on the British forces and send his correspondence by post riders to report the results to General George Washington. A constant battle of obtaining information by visiting coffee houses and other public establishments while acting as a Loyalist to the King.
The culture of New York during the years of the American Revolutionary War consisted of mainly Dutch origins. Most of the people wore wooden shoes and Dutch pots were used for the food preparations and hideaway beds were common as well as fold away tables to allow more living space in the home. This same culture definitely carried over into the local businesses as remnants of the past cascade onto pages of history with inventory of the colonial coffee houses. The rules pertaining to the auctions varied from one house to another but as to the Merchants Coffee House in New York, it appears that the bidding continued until the candle went out. A candle was placed near the board listing the items up for auction. The board would be clearly viewed from all angles of the large room allowing bids to be casted up to the point when the candle no longer held a flame.
One can only imagine the interesting conversations taking place, the constant bidding which consisted of both Continental and British currency here and there while sipping hot coffee. Rooms were available upstairs for rent and the “landlady”, Miss Mary Smith was responsible for these accommodations during the time of the Culper Spy Ring. It’s interesting to note that Robert Townsend visited the Merchants Coffee House on a regular basis until 1782. It was at this point that he removed his store from New York and moved to Oyster Bay to live out his quiet life.
Evidence continues to emerge with the discovery of the Culper Spy Ring and the events that changed the American Revolutionary War. Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !!
- Oliver, Andrew Journal of Samuel Curwen published 1972 Harvard University Press Salem, Massachusetts
- Kaminski Auctions
- Kamensky, Jane The Exchange Artist published 2008 Penguin Group USA
- New York Historical Society
- Ukers, William All About Coffee published 1922 New York